This is one of those common phrases that I have never really questioned until now.

According to the free dictionary, "Big cheese" means an "important person".

But what on earth does "cheese" have to do with being important? Where did this phrase come from?

  • Note the bad poetry that big cheeses have inspired.
    – Robusto
    Aug 13, 2012 at 16:00
  • 3
    Here is an exhaustive explanation: worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-big1.htm Aug 13, 2012 at 18:00
  • 2
    I think the emphasis is more on "big" than on "cheese". Someone important can also be called a "big wheel," or a "bigwig," a "big gun," a "big shot," or the "big kahuna." Just a thought. I also wondered if there might be a link between big cheese and big wheel, since cheesemakers can make big wheels of cheese, but that's only a curiosity; I haven't researched it.
    – J.R.
    Aug 15, 2012 at 1:30

9 Answers 9


It appears to be from Persian and Urdu.


(in phrase big cheese) informal

an important person:
he was a really big cheese in the business world


1920s: probably via Urdu from Persian čīz 'thing': the phrase the cheese was used earlier to mean 'first-rate' (i.e. the thing)

  • +1 and I wonder if French 'chose' is in any way related. Aug 13, 2012 at 16:32
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    @BarrieEngland Um, French chose < Latin causa. English cheese < WGer. *kâsi, adapted < Latin cāseus. Got an etymological dictionary for Farsi? I don’t.
    – tchrist
    Aug 13, 2012 at 20:07
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    The etymology of the standard English word "cheese" (fermented milk product) is irrelevant to the idiomatic "big cheese" - which as OED says, is "of doubtful origin; but prob. a. Pers. and Urdū chīz ‘thing’." And if French chose < Latin causa, that must also be unconnected. Aug 14, 2012 at 1:30
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    Am I to understand from "the cheese" meaning "the (first-rate) thing", that it's actually very related to saying something is "the shit" ? Just asking because I'd like a good reason to call my boss "the big shit".
    – Flater
    May 29, 2015 at 8:34
  • I think there is quite a difference between first-class and important person. A very doubtful etymology. It is more probable that "big cheeze" is just a variant with a new noun after "big".
    – rogermue
    May 29, 2015 at 16:11

Green's Dictionary of Slang has big cheese as

(Originally U.S) and important person, an influential figure, a boss in a situation or job.

The earliest citation is from 1908, with another from 1913.

I have to say that this casts some doubt on the Urdu derivation, as American slang is not typically Anglo-Indian in origin. He also notes that an alternative meaning:-

(a) an unpleasant, incompetent, stupid person; usually ext. as big cheese, piece of cheese, plate of cheese, poor cheese etc.

whose earliest citation is 1864, or...

(b) as [above] but used jocularly or affectionately

Whose earliest citation is 1891.

  • While big cheese may be American, the etymology of cheese in the expression still seems to have its origin in India by way of England.
    – MetaEd
    Aug 17, 2012 at 5:14
  • @MetaEd, the dates given by Quinion make it more probable. Aug 17, 2012 at 5:49

Robert Hendrickson, The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (1997) gives an earlier date for "big cheese" in the sense of "important person" than either Green (cited by Brian Hooper) or Oxford Dictionaries (cited by Andrew Leach) give:

big cheese. A big cheese, for "a boss or important person," is an Americanism dating back to about 1890. But it derives from the British expression the cheese, meaning "the thing or the correct thing, the best." The British expression, in turn, is a corruption of the Persian or Urdu chiz (or cheez), "thing," that the British brought back from India in about 1840. A big cheese thus has nothing to do with cheese and should properly be "a big chiz."

Unfortunately, Hendrickson doesn't provide a citation for his "about 1890" date—or for any other date.

As for the origin of the British term the cheese, Farmer & Henley, Slang and Its Analogues (1891) offers this discussion:

Summing up the evidence, the expression—(barring a solitary reference in the London Guide of 1818, where it is referred to a bald translation of c'est une autre chose, i.e., that is another CHEESE, subsequently coming to signify that it is the real thing)—appears to have come into vogue about 1840. This contention is borne out in some measure by a correspondent to Notes and Queries (1853), I, S., viii., p. 89), who speaks of it as about "ten or twelve years old," a calculation that carries it back to the date when it appears to have started in literature. Yule, writing much later, says the expression was common among young Anglo-Indians, e.g., 'my new Arab is the real chiz,' i.e., 'the real thing,' a fact which points to a Persian origin.

According to Farmer & Henley, one of a handful of contemporaneous terms for an important person was "big bug":

BIG BUG, subs. [popular]—A person of standing or consequence, either self-estimated or in reality. A disrespectful but common mode of allusion to persons of wealth or with other claims to distinction. Variants are BIG-DOG, BIG-TOAD, BIG-WIG, and GREAT GUN.

Early Google Books results

The earliest specific metaphorical instance of a phrase of the type "big cheese" that I've been able to find through Google Books searches involves the phrase "main cheese." From Roy McCardell, "The Shirtwaist Girl," in Puck [the U.S. periodical, not the British one] (October 9, 1901):

Benny Levitski and Skates Monahan and Willy was offering, "Fade Back to the Forest, You!" to each other, and scrappin' to dance with me.

Huh! Was I the main cheese at me party? Well, I guess yes!

And from "Horticulture and Hens," in California Cultivator and Livestock and Dairy Journal (October 3, 1902):

It would seem hardly necessary to enumerate the different ways in which each [that is, orchards and poultry] benefits the other, as they are quite obvious to any and all discerning minds. As I have only called attention to the fact that the horticulturist is prone to look upon poultry in the orchard as a supplement to the main edition, whereas it should constitute as much of the “main cheese” as does the orchard.

And from George Ade, People You Know (1903):

"This is a likely-looking Plant," said Brad, as he sized up the [college] Campus. "I like to encourage these Joints because they help to keep a lot of Young Fellows away from Business offices. I find that I have here in my Vest-Pocket a measly $50,000 that I have overlooked in changing my Clothes. Give it to the Main Cheese and tell him to have a Laboratory on me."

The earliest metaphorical instance of "big cheese" in Google Books search results is from 1906, but in this instance "Big Cheese" seems to refer to a source of wealth or success rather than to a powerful or admirable person. From The Pharmaceutical Era (1906) [combined snippets]:

Late that night, when mamma and honey-boy were asleep, the grown-up boy sat and thought about that cheese, and thought of the many big cheese promises that are made, and how few are kept. He thought of the many other grown-up boys who, year after year, look for a Big Cheese and, failing to find it, carry a keen disappointment throughout life: and in that disappointment lose confidence In their fellows.

It thus appears that in the Google Books database, at any rate, "main cheese" may have preceded "big cheese" as a term for an important person.


I recently revisited this question and it occurred to me that in the general push to identify a similar-sounding (or similar-looking) word that in a foreign language means something like "important [thing or person]," we may not have given enough consideration to a simpler explanation: the possibility (which poster Been There has attempted in three separate answers to champion) that the phrase originally referred to an extremely large cheese. With the aim of taking that possibility seriously, I offer the following investigation into the history of big cheese and main cheese.

'Big cheese' as a magnet for public attention

Although Been There's supporting documentation focuses on 1,230-pound cheese presented to Thomas Jefferson in 1802 following his election as U.S. president, the production of gigantic cheeses for display at fairs and other public exhibitions is a recurring theme during the nineteenth century. Such exhibitions became increasingly common over the second half of that century.

An Elephind search for "big cheese" yields the following decade-by-decade progression in number of newspaper matches: 1830s, 2, 1840s, 1; 1850s, 13; 1860s, 45; 1870s, 72, 1880s, 75; 1890s, 174. Many of these matches involve references to a large but by no means enormous cheese, and others are fragments of longer phrases such as "a big [as in major] cheese manufacturer." But others, across the years, refer to mammoth cheeses that were created for display. Here are some examples.

From "One Day Later in Washington," in the Rutland [Vermont] Herald (February 28, 1837):

Mr Alford opposed the motion for a recess. He said it was time, if they intended to do any public business this session, that they forthwith set about it, for they had wasted time enough already. As for the battle with the great cheese at the White House [which had been delivered there in honor of the departing President Andrew Jackson], he was for leaving it to those whose taste led them there, and tomorrow they might receive a full account of the killed and slain. ...

Mr Wise remarked that it was pretty well understood where the absent members had gone. There was a big cheese to be eaten at the White House to-day, and the appetites of members had driven them to partake in the treat.

From an untitled item in the [Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania] Daily Morning Post (April 26, 1848):

The editor of the Nashville [Tennessee] Union speaks of a cheese in that city, as "the largest cheese we have ever seen;" and he says:—"It is said to weigh 700 pounds, and is unquestionably the daddy of all the little cheeses!" It is no doubt true, that this is the biggest cheese that our Nashville friend has ever seen; but the rest of his statement is not to be taken for granted. He has surely forgotten about that big cheese, presented to the revered patriot of the Hermitage [Andrew Jackson], which was cut when Mr. Van Buren was inaugurated, and weighed 1400 pounds! Why your Nashville cheese is only one of the great grand children of that; for there were various others sent to Washington at the same time, that were about the same size of yours!

From an untitled item in the Gallipolis [Ohio] Journal (April 27, 1854):

Ford & Drouillard "cut a big cheese" the other day, and submitted a large slice to our judgment. Well, it is good and no mistake, if you don't believe it, "pitch in" and taste for yourself.

From an untitled item in the Greencastle [Indiana] Banner (October 27, 1864):

The Californians are famous for big mines, big trees, etc., and now have added a big cheese to their list of big brags. At the late Sanitary Fair in San Francisco, a cheese weighing 3,800 pounds net, manufactured by Steele & Brother, of Pescadora [probably Pescadero], was on exhibition in the Floral Temple. The Messrs. Steele removed to California from Lorain county, Ohio, a number of years ago. and engaged in the vicinity of San Francisco. How successfully, their monster cheese shows.

From an item in the [Santa Rosa, California] Sonoma Democrat (May 27, 1876):

A Big Cheese

An Ohio dairyman proposes to make a cheese for the Centennial to weigh 25,000 pounds. It will require one day’s milk from 20,000 cows and will be as much cheese as 50,000 men can comfortably eat in one day. It would feed all the citizens of Santa Rosa for about two weeks and there would be scraps enough left to bait all the rat-traps in the State.

From "Mammoth Cheeses," in the [Chicago, Illinois] Prairie Farmer (October 10, 1885):

One of the traditions in the dairy region of Central New York is that of the big cheese made there and sent to Andrew Jackson by his admirers, when he was President of the United States [1829–1837]. It was a formidable undertaking in those days to make a cheese weighing 800 lbs, and its successful accomplishment showed much enterprise. But with the present system of associated dairying a cheese four times as large as the historic article of 50 years ago, is made without serious difficulty. ...

Two others still larger [than 3,000 pounds] were recently made to order of Mr. Geo. W. Hayward, an enterprising dealer of Buffalo, N.Y. who had already distinguished himself in this direction. One of his cheeses was made on Tuesday, Sept. 22, and the second two days later. The first weighed 3,306 lbs, and the second 3,340 lbs. They are to be cut up and sold respectively for Thanksgiving and Christmas. To stimulate the sale, Mr. Hayward dropped ten gold coins of $5 each in the curd, while it was being placed in the mammoth hoop. ... The only advantage claimed for these monster cheeses is novelty.

From "Topics of the Day," in The Washington [D.C.] Critic (April 7, 1888), recounting the story of the great cheese given to Thomas Jefferson in 1802:

The cheese was put to press with prayer and hymn-singing and great solemnity. When it was well dried it weighed 1,600 pounds. It was placed on a sleigh, and Elder John Leland drove with it all the way [from Cheshire, Massachusetts] to Washington. It was a journey of three weeks. All the country had heard of the big cheese, and came out to look at it as the elder drove along.

From "The Great Exposition: Some of the Spectacular Features of the World's Fair," in the Wichita [Kansas] Daily Eagle (February 22, 1893):

In the agricultural section is to be a mammoth among commonplace displays. It is a cheese—a plain Canadian cheese, but its weight is 26,000 pounds, its height six feet and its diameter nine feet. It furnishes so much weight within a small area that the foundation of the floor had to be strengthened to sustain it.


Kansas shows the variety of the country's forest monstrosities in a section of a walnut log 9 feet in diameter and so heavy that, like the big cheese, it has to have a special foundation in the Forestry building.

From "When We Were Boys: A Picture of an Old-time Celebration in the Country," originally printed in the Boston Post, reprinted in the [Monmouth, Illinois] Warren County Democrat (June 28, 1894), evidently describing a celebration of the Fourth of July in a typical Massachusetts village sometime in the 1850s:

By 10 o'clock all the town was out [for the Independence Day celebration], and so many from the country that the village contained 3,000 or 4,000 people. If the season had been very early "down on the sand barrens," a few watermelons were fr sale, but not often. Of home-made beer, ginger cakes, currant pies, striped candy and the like, the sale was wonderful—a stand under every big tree. In the village grocery the big cheese [not previously mentioned in this article] was cut and regular customers invited to taste it. "Cuba six" cigars (six for 5 cents) were so plentiful that every boy could have one.

From "Davis County Cheese," in the Salt Lake [City, Utah] Herald (July 4, 1897):

The Hooper Dairy company has made the big cheese for the manufacturer's float [for the Independence Day parade]. It is about the size of a wagon wheel and 14 inches in depth, weighing about 700 pounds.

As these various examples indicate, big cheeses were a crowd-pleasing attraction at major holidays and exhibitions in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America—not unlike butter cow sculptures today. Given that history, it is not unthinkable that people of a sarcastic turn of mind might have noticed an unfamiliar politician or other celebrity surrounded by admirers in a public place and asked, "Who is the big cheese?"—without any intention of invoking a word from Urdu, Farsi, French, German, Italian, or Ukrainian that sounds more or less similar to cheese.

Earliest instances of 'big cheese' as a person who is the center of attention

The earliest instance of big cheese in arguably its modern figurative sense actually involves an extended metaphor of "big cheese" and "little cheese." From "Those Cotton Associations," in the [Dallas, Texas] Southern Mercury and Farmers Union Password (February 1, 1906):

Col. E. S. Peters of Calvert served with distinguished honors for a number of years as "the Texas Cotton Growers' Protective Association." The Colonel was just about "the whole cheese."

But to be exact, there were two cheeses—E.S. Peters, who was "President," and R.E. Smith, who figured acceptably as "Vice-President." As this astute pair comprided the entire lay membership, as well as the full corps of officers of the Texas Cotton Growers' Protective Association, it was as harmonious an agricultural organization as the world has ever known. Did serious differences ever arise between State presidents and vice-presidents as to which should play "second fiddle"? you ask. Probably not. The plan of each State president selecting his own "man Friday," his own second, assured harmony among them. The little cheese dared not fall out with the big cheese, you know.

The usage seems to have caught on more generally in 1908–1909. From "Calls Roosevelt 'the Big Cheese'" in the Spokane [Washington] Press (September 18, 1908):

In commenting on the recent convention that nominated [Charles Evans] Hughes for reelection under pressure from [Theodore] Roosevelt, "Fingey" Conners, the New York democratic state chairman, delivered himself of the following political classic:

"Wot's the use of those guys going to Saratoga, anyway? Why, no use at all. Every one knew that the candidate had been selected by the big cheese at Oyster Bay [Roosevelt's home town]. At Saratoga it was just the same as it was at Chicago. Oyster Bay did the whole t'ing."

From "'David and Goliath' by [Billy] Sunday: Well Known Evangelist Gives His Version of the Famous Conflict — Says David Soaked Goliath on the Coco between the Lamps," in the Wenatchee [Washington] Daily World (January 8, 1909):

"In the morning old Goliath comes out in front of the Philistines and dares the Israelites to fight him. 'Who's that big stiff making all the big talk out there?' asks Dave.

"'Why, that's the big cheese, the big noise,' says his brothers.

"'Why don't some one soak him one?' asks Dave.

"'We've all got cold feet,' says the Israelites.

From "Later Cohan Show Falls Below Standard Set by Earlier Show," in the Washington [D.C.] Times (March 30, 1909):

About "Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway" is a quiet retreat, much to the old homestead with a happy forever after effect. Here the Kid [Burns] hies himself after a busy session of public life and hits it up with the muse while he loosens his half-Nelson on grammar. Nothing doing on the quiet life. The villainess heads the procession in a repentant mood and returns the certified check. A honeymoon pair halts to pay their respects to Burns, then comes the big cheese in [millionaire Dudley] Wilcox him himself. Father has gotten wise to the Kid's little act of self-sacrifice and the whole unqualified family is ready to fall on his shoulders, even unto both parties of the second generation.

From "About A.P. Walker's Jerseys," in Chicago [Illinois] Livestock World (May 28, 1909):

When we all get down to A.P. Walker's new home at Rushville, Ind., to attend his Jersey [cow] sale on June 16, the "big cheese" will be Derry's Golden Jolly. His sister sold for $3,860 two years ago and a daughter for $2,500.

And from an untitled item in the [Mesquite] Texas Mesquiter (September 10, 1909):

Gov. Campbell finds that he cannot be at El Paso to meet Presidents Taft and Diaz, but informs the committee that he will visit El Paso later. Perhaps the Governor prefers to go when he can be the Big Cheese.

That's five instances in less than a full year, from New York, Washington state, Washington D.C., Illinois, and Texas—quite a distribution. I briefly investigated the possibility that big cheese might be related to big wheel (as in "big wheel of cheese"), but it appears from a much earlier instance of big wheel (from the [Santa Rosa, California] Sonoma Democrat, January 27, 1872) that the latter term refers to gear wheels:

The [San Francisco] Fire Department was to have been called out [for a parade review] on the same afternoon, but the Fire Commissioners, thinking they had not been treated with sufficient consideration, refused to permit it.

The fact that the Mayor could not order them out in spite of the Commissioners, was a source of more astonishment to the Prime Minister of Japan, than the display could possibly have been. Their [the Japanese delegation's] first idea of the machinery of government is a big wheel which turns all the other wheels. As it was, they learned more than they could have done by the parade.

'Main cheese' as a slang term for 'important person'

The phrase main cheese is far less common than big cheese in Elephind search results, with only 12 matches from the entire nineteenth century and 32 more from the first decade of the twentieth century, many of which do not use it as a set phrase. Nevertheless, several of the matches do use main cheese as a slang term, supplementing the early Google Books instances cited above.

From "Coming Attractions," in the Los Angeles [California] Herald (December 24, 1899):

George Fuller Golden, that Titian haired humorist, whose quaint quips and gay stories of his redoubtable friend Casey amused Orpheum audiences so mightily last year, is again to the front, and as of yore, he tops an Orpheum bill. He is the piece de resistance of the new bill, which in Irish is equivalent to "main cheese." Golden has that wonderful gift of being able to magnetize an audience and with no other aids than a brilliant smile, a shock of auburn hair and a vast fund of very funny stories and an occasional song with an imitation or two thrown in for good measure, Golden convulses his hearers and sets the rafters ringing with the echoes of the laughing people.

From a series of humorous one-off items in the Houston [Texas] Post (October 13, 1901):

Instead of being the main cheese in after dinner oratory, Chauncey will soon play the part of large and enthusiastic audience at a course of after bedtime curtain lectures.

From "One Forty-two," in the Wichita [Kansas] Daily Eagle (November 3, 1901):

"Me an' T'ree Twenty-seven goes against de night school game an' gits wise dat what we needs better ventilation. Dat bad air stops up de pores on' puts a kid on de bum. We makes a spiel to de Main Cheese dat we got to have a electric fan to keep de gray matter cool out in de waitin room. He takes it up wid de Board of Directors and dey pass a appropriation of two sixty-t'ree to make de great reform. ..."


"We has a bank roll wid six eighteen in it, when one day de Main Cheese—dat's de manager—goes against de wheel an' drops two twenty-six.Dat makes him sore, an' so he makes a order dat gamblin is de curse of de nation, an' we got to pay back all de dough dat we won. ..."

This sense of main cheese persists through the middle 1920s and then becomes quite rare, although Elephind does offer this example from "Super Sunday Is Just Not What It Used to Be," in the [Pennsylvania State] Collegian (January 24, 1990):

The 49er's have everything going for them. They have dismantled each of their playoff opponents and are playing like a "dynasty" team. No team has repeated as the NFL's main cheese since the Steelers did it in '79 and '80.

'Whole cheese' as a slang term for 'important person'

Another expression with a brief vogue (particularly between 1898 and 1910) in the United States as a slang term meaning "big shot" is whole cheese. The first instance that Elephind turn up is from an untitled item in the [Dallas, Texas] Southern Mercury (July 7, 1898):

The Democrats are having a hot time in Pennsylvania. Harrity has his war clothes and is determined to prove to Jim Jones that Jim Guffy is not the whole cheese in that State. The fight is a bitter one, and the aureate statesman has decided to give Guffy the "hottest shot he has in the shop."

From "As Other Towns See It," in the Rock Island [Illinois] Argus (July 18, 1898):

Says the Ottumwa Courier: "And the Rock Island paper is not the only one that is talking that way now. Down in Quincy, where they thought Sidney Frick was the whole cheese, they are beginning to realize the fact that a [baseball] club run by a board of home directors is much [better] for a town than if the club is turned over to one man absolutely.

From an untitled item in the Wichita [Kansas] Daily Eagle (September 7, 1898):

Chaplain McIntyre, who said that the Oregon at the battle of Santiago was the whole cheese, will be court-martialed. Such a declaration tended to disorganize Admiral Sampson's peace of mind.

From "Ward Conventions: Republicans Name Candidates for Justices and Constables," in the Salt Lake [City, Utah] Herald (September 23, 1898):

Bonetti, who had been appointed sergeant-at-arms, was fain to cry, "Ladies and gentlemen, behave yourselves," which they did, and after a discussion, a motion, two amendments and an amendment to the amendment to the amendment, offered by Joe Cottle, who was apparently the whole cheese, a collection was taken up and $10.35 raised which was confided to the car of Mr Post who placed the amount down in the deepest pocket he he had and took a station near the door, where he could readily escape.

About two dozen more instances of whole cheese in the sense of the most important person or thing appear in Elephind search results between this last instance and December 24, 1899, when the first instance of main cheese appears with the same meaning.


Three different poplar slang phrases with cheese-related themes debut within a fairly brief span of years in Elephind newspaper database search results. In July 1898, we see the first match for whole cheese (or more precisely, the whole cheese), a term that continues to appear in newspaper matches until 1944, despite peaking between 1900 and 1920. In December 1899, we get the first Elephind match for main cheese in very nearly the same sense; that expression—far less popular than whole cheese—peaked in the first decade of the twentieth century and died out (except for a couple of outliers much later) in 1944 as well. Big cheese made its Elephind debut as a slang term for "important person" in February 1906 and continues to be in use to this day.

The nineteenth-century history of "the big cheese" as a very large cheese that commanded popular attention and appeared especially at special events and on special occasion certainly provides a plausible basis for the term big cheese to come into use as a slang term applied to an important person—but to get there, we have to go through whole cheese and main cheese, which (in the newspaper data that I have access to) predate the personified big cheese by, respectively, seven years and six years.

That's a not insignificant problem—but I feel far more inclined today to take large cheeses seriously as the ultimate referent source of big cheese in the slang sense than I did four years ago.


A newer theory:

German for emperor is Kaiser /Kaizer/. German for cheese is Kase /Keizer/ ( sorry, no schwar in iphone)

British WW1 soldiers may well have got a rise out of pronouncing Kaiser as Kase; hence a more derogatory theory for "Big Cheese" as a reference to "one with power over others".

  • 1
    Interesting theory—can you site any reference work that makes this argument?
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 31, 2016 at 23:46
  • I came to the same conclusion when I joked about someone being the 'Käse' instead of 'Kaiser' and instinctively thought 'ah, big cheese!'.
    – Marinus
    Apr 12, 2017 at 11:50

I suspect it comes from the British involvement in the Crimean war. A soldier would address an officer as 'sir', but sir is also Ukranian word for 'cheese'. Calling senior officers 'big cheeses' would have appealed to the foot soldiers sense of humour.

  • 2
    Stuff and nonsense. Sir is not the Ukranian word for "cheese". The Ukranian word for "cheese" is сир, which is pronounced /sɨr/. Listen to it here. Sir in English is pronounced /sɜː(ɹ)/. It is completely and utterly impossible to draw any connection whatsoever between the two. And have you noticed that this question already has an actual answer? Please do not spam the site like that. Thank you.
    – RegDwigнt
    Aug 9, 2013 at 16:30

In early American history in the 1700's a group of farm families, including John Wells and his cheese-making wife Francis Brown Wells, from the Berkshires came up with a fun idea of creating a giant wheel of cheese to send Pres. Jefferson as a gift of congratulations. It was so big it had to be carted on a wagon. They were celebrating the election outcome. Pres. Jefferson is said to have received it at the front door of the White House and served it's remnants to opposing party guests long past it's prime. From the History of the Berkshires.

  • This is certainly an interesting anecdote. But are you sure this story introduced the term "big cheese" into English? Many of the other answers cite a much later date for the first known use of that term. Also, I could not locate your source, History of the Berkshires. Could you provide more detail?
    – Ted Broda
    May 27, 2014 at 0:55

I was wondering the same useless facts on this term the "Big Cheese" myself.

My guess, and it's a guess only, is that could it also be derived from Italian/Latin origins? 'Cesare' in Italian is pronounced 'Che-sa-reh'. I learnt this from my Italian work mate and I heard it also a YouTube show of someone pronouncing his name this way in America.

So my guess was the word 'Cheese' derived from 'Cesare' since he was a big boss of from the old Roman Empire.

I know this is a loose definition, but there's lots of Anglo words that have come from Latin origins.

That's my 2 cents. Happy to be proven wrong though.


In every era and among every people since the race began we find men who leave the impress of their ^character on all associated with them. Men born to rule their fellows, and to mould the thoughts and opinions of state and nation. Such a man was Elder Leland ; not only in the sparsely settled districts of old Virginia where his influence was sought when a great measure was before the people, but also among the sturdy farmers of this little village, his political views were heartily and unanimously en- dorsed. A strong Jeffersonian himself, the whole people were admirers of Jefferson also. When he was chosen to fill the Presidential chair their exultation knew no bounds, and impelled by a desire to pay him some tribute of respect, the original thought occurred to them that from so fa- mous a dairying community what could be more appropriate than a mam-


moth cheese, the result of their united contributions. In investigating the history of the manufacture of this cheese we find a diversity of opiniou as to the place of making, some of the older people claiming that the curd was mixed at Elisha Brown's, on the farm now occupied by William Bennet^ and there pressed, then brought down to Captain Daniel Brown's to be cured and dried. In support of this theory we copy from the Hampshire Gazette of September 10th, 1801, the following quaint account of its mak- ing and journey :

"And Jacknips said unto the Cheshireites behold the Lord hath pnt in a ruler over us that is after our own hearts. Now let us gather toti;ether our curd, and carry it into the valley of Elisha unto his wine press, and there make a great cheese, that we may make a thank offering unto that great man. Xow these sayings pleased the Cheshireites, so they did as Jacknips had commanded. And they said unto Darius, the son of Daniel, the prophet, make us a great hoop, four feet in diameter, and eighteen inches high, and Darius did as he was commanded, and Asahel and Benjamin, the blacksmiths, secured it with strong iron bands, so that it could not give way. Now the time for making the great cheese was on the 20th day of the seventh month, when all the Jacobites assembled as one man, every man with his curd except John, the physician, who said : ' I have no curd but I will doctor the Federalists, send them to me and I will cure their fedism,' but Jacknips said : ' Behold Frances, the wife of John the Hillite, she is a goodly woman and she is wont to make good cheese, now she shall be chief among women.' Now, when all these things were ready, they put it in Elisha's press — ten days did they press it ; but on the eleventh, Jacknips said unto the Cheshireites ' Behold, now let us gather together a great multitude and move it to the great house of Daniel, the prophet, there to be cured and dried.' Now Daniel lives about eight furlongs from the valley of Elisha. So they made a great parade and mounted the cheese on a sled and put six horses to draw it. And Jacknips went forward, and when he came to the inn of Little Moses he said unto Moses ' Behold, the great cheese is coming.' And Moses said unto Freelove his wife, • Behold the multitude advancing, now let us kill all the first born of the lambs and he goats and make a great feast.' And they did so, and the people did eat meat and drink wine, the fourth part of a hin each, so they were very merry. And Jacknips said : ' It shall come to pass when your children shall say unto you, what mean you by this great cheese ?' Ye shall answer them saying : ' It is a sacrifice unto our great ruler, because he giveth gifts unto the Jacobites and taketh them from the Fed- eralists.' And Jacknips said : ' Feradventure within two years I shall present this great cheese as a thank offering unto our great ruler,' and all the Cheshireites shall say ' Amen.' "

Others claim that it was brought to Daniel Brown's in the beginning, and we incline to this statement from the fact that Mr. Edmund Foster (grandson of Captain Brown) and others of equally good authority are posi- tive that such was the case. Each good wife set her milk in her own dairy and on the appointed day brought the curds, and there were mixed and salted by the most skillful dairy women. It was pressed in the cider-mill, and one month from the day of its making it weighed 1,235 pounds. From the fact that at a later period a larger cheese was made in the same town

FROM 1707—1807. 87

weighing about 1,400 pounds, doubtless arises the conflicting -statement. In the early fall the cheese was carefully packed and in the care and escort of Elder Leiand and Darius Brown, it was drawn to Hudson and from there shipped by water to Washington. Through the kindness of Mr. Daniel B. Brown (son of Darius), we arc able to give the presentation speech, and Jefferson's reply, from the original documents. The latter bear- ing the signature traced by the hand that penned the Declaration of Inde- jiendence, and struck slavery from the north western territory.

To Thomas Jeffemon, President of the United States of America : —

SiK : — Notwithstanding we live remote from the seat of our national government in an extreme part of our own state, yet we humbly claim the right of judging for ourselves. Our attachment to the national constitution is indissoluble. We consider it as a definition of those powers which the people have delegated to their magis- trates to be exercised for definite purposes, and not as a charter of favors granted by a sovereign to his subjects. Among its beautiful features the right of free suffrage, to correct all abuses, the prohibition of religious tests to prevent all hierachy, and the means of amendment whicli,it contains within itself to remove defects as fast as they are discovered, appear the most prominent. Such being the sentiments which we entertain our joy must have been exquisite on your appointment to the first office in the nation. The trust is great. Tlie task is arduous. But we believe the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, who raises up men to achieve great events, has raised up a Jefferson at this critical day to defend Kepublicanism, and to baffle the arts of aristocracy. We wish to prove the love we bear to our President, not by words alone but in deed and in trufh. With this address we send you a cheese, by the hands of Messrs. John Leiand and Darius Brown, as a token of the esteem which we bear to our Chief Magistrate, and of the sense we entertain of the singular blessings that have been derived Irom the numerous services you have rendered mankind in general, and more especially to this favored nation over which you preside. It is not the last stone of the Bastile, nor is it an article of great pecuniary worth, but as a free will offering, we hope it will be favorably received. The cheese was procured by the per- sonal labor ot freeborn farmers with the voluntary and cheerful aid of their wives and daughters, without the assistance of a single slave. It was originally intended for an elective President of a free people and with a principal view of casting a mite into the even scale of Federal Democracy. We hope it will safely arrive at its destined place, and that its quality will prove to be such as may not disappoint the wishes of those who made it. To that Infinite Being who governs the Universe we ardently pray that your life and health may long be preserved, that your usefulness may be still continued, that your administration may be no less pleasant to yourself than it is grateful to us and to the nation at large, aud that the blessings of generations yet unborn may come upon you. In behalf of ourselves, and our fellow citizens of Ches- hire, we render you the tribute of profound respect.

Jefferson's reply:

To Messrs Daniel Brown, Hezekiah Mason, Jonathan RirJiardson, John Waterman and

John Wells, Jun., a committee of the town of Cheshire, in Massoichusetts.

I concur with you in the sentiments expressed in your kind address on behalf of

the inhabitants of the town of Cheshire, that the Constitution of the United States is

a charter of authorities and duties, not a charter of rights to its officers, and that


among its mostpret-ious provisions are the right of suffrage, the prohibition of religious tests, and its means of peaceable amendment. Nothing ensures the duration of this fair fabric of government so effectually as the due sense entertained by the body of our citizens of the value of these principles and their care to preserve them. I receive vpith particular pleasure the testimony of good will with which your citizens have been pleas- ed to charge you. It presents an extraordinary proof of the skill with which those do- mestic arts which contribute so much to our daily comfort, are practiced by them, and i^articularly by that portion of them most interesting to the affections, the cares and the happiness of man. To myself, this mark of esteem from fi-ee born farmers, employed personally in the useful labors of life, is peculiarly grateful, having no wish but to preserve to them the fruits of their labor, their sense of this truth will be my highest reward. I pray you gentlemen to make my thanks for their favor accep- table to them, and to be assured yourselves of my highest respect and esteem.

Thomas Jeffekson.

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